CHATTO CREEK, NEW ZEALAND — At the Chatto Creek Tavern, we sat chatting to Lesley for an hour and a half over breakfast, because it had rained overnight and we were in no hurry to go.
Once, there were so many rabbits in Otago that farmers said the hills seemed to be moving, and Lesley told us it was her great-grandmother who first brought them, arriving from Ireland at age 14, to local fanfare.
They were meant to be a food source but escaped and began eating gardens and crops. Rabbits still are a big problem, and she told us about a local farm owner who had failed to control them. “He’s going on holiday soon, and the other farmers are going to move onto his property and take care of the problem,” Lesley said. “Oh, they will.”
We finally got going at 10 a.m and drove to Shebikeshebikes in Omakau, where Steve the proprietor set us up with nice mountain bikes, helmets, panniers and even trip notes on route, water, available food and toilets and even the pronunciation of the next town. In New Zealand, people really look out for you.
Opened in 2000, the 152km Otago was New Zealand’s first rail trail, and we were a little surprised to see how rough it was — in Minnesota, only four-wheelers would use a trail like that. But the sky was blue and the scenery lovely, especially after we left Lauder (“law-da”) and approached Poolburn Gorge, where the tawny hills began to erupt with schist rock knobs and spires.
A retired couple from North Havelock on the North Island offered to take our photo on a scenic bridge over the Manuherakia River, and we returned the favor later up the trail, a stop that turned into a 20-minute conversation.
The gorge got steeper and rockier, and then the trail went right into the hillside, through a brick-lined tunnel. Another tunnel was right around the corner. We rode as far as a viaduct made of hand-hewn stone and an overlook of the Ida Valley, then noticed that the wind had picked up and and clouds were gathering.
On the way back, we could see a truly scary-looking bank of black clouds enveloping the mountains of Fiordland, where we would have been hiking that day. We were so grateful we were in Otago instead.
We returned the bikes, made a little detour to see the restored mining town of Ophir and west again. Then the rain started and the temperature dropped. It let up in time for us to stop at the DOC visitor centre and New World Market in Wanaka and check into our $75 lodge room at the Glendhu Bay Motor Camp on Lake Wanaka.
By the time the rain started again, we were ensconced in a brand-new building that had a living room with a wood-burning fireplace and picture windows with a view of Mount Aspiring and its brand-new topping of snow. We even had it all to ourselves.
In the well-equipped kitchen, we made rice and sautéed salmon, zucchini and red pepper (“capsicum” in New Zealand) while watching the news, “Wheel of Fortune” and “Jeopardy.” Torsten made a fire, and after a while, the sun came out — though the rain didn’t stop for a while.
When it did, and the clouds began to clear, Torsten parked himself in front of a picture window and got a good eyeful of snow-capped mountains. We weren’t on them, but this was a pretty good trade.